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Give students an incentive to volunteer

Zach Duffy

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Lina Menard, the community service coordinator at Whitman College, has her work cut out for her as she recruits this year’s batch of volunteers. According to newly-released statistics from the Community Service Office, just 467 students, or 32.3 percent of the student body, participated in a community service event last year.

The actual number of students volunteering at Whitman is likely to be significantly higher, given that the Community Service Office can only track the community service hours of students who are in contact with the office beforehand. Fraternity and sorority philanthropic events, individually coordinated community service projects and volunteer projects organized through residence hall sections were not included in the statistics. But even if counting such additional community service projects would raise Whitman’s volunteer rates to near 50 percent or beyond, one has to wonder: Why are the remaining Whitman students choosing not to get involved in community service activities?

It’s not for lack of opportunity that many Whitman students do not volunteer. The Community Service Office organizes four well-run and well-advertised volunteer programs on campus. The Whitman Mentor Program pairs Whitman students with elementary and middle school students in the Walla Walla area. The Story Time Project sends volunteers to read stories to young children in classrooms, libraries and day cares. The Adopt-a-Grandparent Program matches students with seniors at the nearby Odd Fellows Home. And the Youth Adventure Program brings low-income and at-risk youth on outdoor trips led by Whitman students.

I asked some of my less community service-oriented friends why they didn’t volunteer last year, and their responses were unanimous: Whitman provides no incentive for getting involved in the community. With nothing more to gain from volunteering than a sense of charity, why not just stay on campus and take a nap? Some might argue that the very purpose of community service is for it to be a selfless act without material or tangible reward, but I think that my friends’ comments deserve further attention.

Whitman professes on its website to prepare students “for lives of leadership and service,” and I would argue that, as part of this mission, Whitman has a responsibility not only to develop students into capable academic thinkers, but also to foster their civic engagement. Service-minded leaders, after all, are neither born dedicated to giving back to their communities nor created in the classroom; they become service-minded after volunteering for nonprofits, attending community meetings and getting involved in social, religious and environmental organizations. By conceiving volunteerism as a purely selfless act, Whitman undermines its ability to develop these kinds of graduates. What about students who are too busy in a given year to volunteer? What about students who don’t care about volunteering right now? What about students who are just plain lazy? If Whitman offered some sort of incentive for community service involvement to its students, it might boost volunteer rates among the student body and cultivate more service-minded leaders.

In fact, a quick glance at Campuscompact.org: a website that catalogs college community service policies: shows that many of Whitman’s peer colleges do provide some sort of incentive for volunteering. Whitworth requires its freshmen to organize and participate in a community service project as part of its core curriculum, laying a foundation for students to volunteer in the future.   The University of Redlands includes three hours of community service among its distribution requirements for graduation. Psychology students at Bates College can complete a comprehensive community service project in the place of a senior thesis.

There are dozens of means by which Whitman’s administration could implement similar community service incentives. Here are some ideas: Create a one-credit community service course similar to the SSRA courses here at Whitman. Students would be allowed to register for one community service course each semester; in order to earn credit, they would have to volunteer for at least two hours a week. Or Whitman could follow the University of Redlands’s lead and institute a graduation service requirement. Under both circumstances, students who already perform community service would get a jump start on their graduation requirements while students who don’t yet volunteer would now have an incentive to do so.

Here at Whitman, everyone likes to emphasize the spirit of public service: William O. Douglas’ service as Supreme Court Justice, Ryan Crocker’s service as an ambassador many times over and the dedicated service of many Whitman students through its clubs. We have a proud and storied history of graduating great leaders who give back to their communities. But the truth is that, at present, Whitman is no different from a lot of other colleges that have some students dedicated to volunteering and many others who are not. If we really want Whitman to be a place where public service is celebrated, then it’s time to think about rewarding or requiring community service involvement.

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One Response to “Give students an incentive to volunteer”

  1. Why Is Volunteerism Among College Students Declining? | whitneylynngodwin on November 20th, 2013 7:12 am

    […] There’s no incentive. There shouldn’t have to be an incentive to want to help others, but it certainly helps. Make sure your volunteer is passionate about your organization. Offer something for your volunteer, even if it’s just a good recommendation letter. Allow them to gain experience by including them in decision making and giving them more to do than merely stuffing envelopes or taking out the trash. […]

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Whitman news since 1896
Give students an incentive to volunteer